Jewish Life

Bonds of Life: Memorializing those we lost to COVID-19

Traditional Jewish mourning practices are largely impossible to observe during the coronavirus pandemic. But we can still come together to mourn those we’ve lost: parents and spouses, friends and colleagues, rabbis and teachers and neighbors and more – whose lives deserve to be celebrated. To memorialize those in the Jewish community who died of COVID-19, JTA is sharing the lives of those who have been lost.

Frida Wattenberg, 95, smuggled Jewish orphans out of Nazi-occupied France

(JTA) – Frida Wattenberg was too young to get a driver’s license when the Nazis invaded her native France in 1940. But three years later, at the age of 19, she was already risking her life by helping to drive Jewish children out of occupied France into neutral Switzerland.

Wattenberg died in Paris on April 3 from the coronavirus. She was 96.

“She was a courageous woman and an indefatigable fighter,” the Memorial for the Shoah wrote in an obituary.

Born in Paris in 1924 to parents who had immigrated from the central Polish city of Lodz, Wattenberg was an activist in the Jewish youth movement HaShomer Hatzair from her early teens. Months after the Germans invaded, Wattenberg, then 16, was recruited into the resistance. In 1942, she secured her mother’s release from Vel d’Hiv, the notorious internment point for Parisian Jews, by obtaining documents indicating her mother was an employee of a factory deemed vital to the German war effort. A year later, she was in Grenoble, in southeastern France, helping smuggle Jewish children, many of them orphans, across the border to safety.

After the war, Wattenberg continued to work with refugee children, becoming a case workers for OPEJ, a Jewish community group that took care of war orphans. An ardent Zionist, she helped organize clandestine immigration by Jews from to pre-state Israel.

Wattenberg had two children, Amnon and Anita, with her husband, Marcel Rudman.

Rabbi Neil Kraft, 69, was beloved by all Londoners

(JTA) – Neil Kraft’s warmth was the reason that many people from different faiths and backgrounds were pained by his death at the age of 69 from the coronavirus in London, where he had for 17 years led the Edgware and Hendon Reform synagogue. He was just weeks from his scheduled retirement date when he died March 27.

Rabbi Neil Kraft, left, with wrestler Crusher Curtis in London. 
(Courtesy of Crusher Curtis)

“Just the nicest man who we all adored and was such a positive influence on my eldest son,” one congregant, Spencer Millman, wrote on Facebook about his late rabbi.

Kraft, who was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, was “hugely popular” in London, the Jewish Chronicle wrote – and not just among his congregants or even the Jewish community.

An avid wrestling fan, he was eulogized by such icons of the local sport scene as Crusher Curtis, who wrote about Kraft on Facebook: “This guy was one of the happiest guys you could’ve ever met. It was always a highlight of mine to have a catch up with him and his son Oscar after every show. I never saw the Rabbi not smiling.” Curtis ended his post with a Hebrew-language condolence greeting.

Kraft and his wife Susannah had two sons.

Bentzion Coopertstock, 63, fed hungry pilgrims

(JTA) – Bentzion Coopertstock, 63, was a father of 11 children, but they weren’t the only ones who knew him as abba. Cooperstock was well-known as the abba (Hebrew for “father”) of Meron, the northern Israeli city where thousands of pilgrims gather every year to celebrate the end of a plague that killed thousands of Jews in the second century. Cooperstock would spend considerable sums feeding the crowds at the grave of  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. According to Yeshiva World News, Cooperstock also installed a “kohanim balcony” at the site, enabling the descendants of the Jewish priestly class – normally barred from entering a cemetery – to participate in communal prayers at the graveside. He was the head of a religious girls’ school in Jerusalem. He was “a man of vigorous kindness who dealt with the needs of the community of believers,” tweeted Aryeh Erlich, an editor of the  magazine Mishpacha. “How sad and symbolic is it that he died while the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is closed and bolted shut. Father, have mercy.”

Yaakov Perlow, a top haredi Orthodox rabbi, was 89

(JTA) – Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, 89, a leading Orthodox rabbi also known as the Novominsker Rebbe, who hailed from a prominent line of rabbis, died at his home in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

(Courtesy of Agudath Israel)

Since 1998, Perlow had served as the president of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization for haredi Orthodox Jews that grew out of the Agudath Israel movement in Poland that his grandfather co-founded. Perlow also headed the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, the Agudah’s rabbinic ruling body. Perlow succeeded his father to become the rabbinic leader of the Novominsker Hasidic dynasty and founded the Yeshivas Novominsk Kol Yehuda, a yeshiva in Borough Park.

Last month, as the coronavirus started spreading rapidly through Orthodox communities across New York state and New Jersey, Perlow urged community members to take seriously the advice of medical experts. “We cannot behave today like we did last week or two weeks ago,” he said in a video message. “We are told that the Jewish law is that we must listen to doctors whether it’s about a sick person on Yom Kippur or a sick person that requires desecrating Shabbat and so on.”

Yerachmiel Beilis, 52: ‘Everything he did was for the sake of heaven’

(JTA) – Just before his synagogue in Chicago’s West Rogers Park shut down in response to the current pandemic, Yerachmiel “Rick” Beilis made a siyum, a festive meal celebrating his completion of a tractate of Talmud. Only weeks later, he was dead, struck down by the coronavirus.

Beilis, 52, a high-tech worker, died April 4, leaving behind four children and a wife who is herself battling the coronavirus. He was a “pillar in my shul,” said Rabbi Efraim Aaron Twerski, leader of Congregation Khal Chasidim, in a video message on crowdfunding website The Chesed Fund. “With a warm smile and friendly cheer, he warmed the hearts of all who saw him every day,” the community said in its financial appeal.

According to the site, Beiles’ family was deep in debt because he spent “every penny he made” on his children’s education and his wife Elisheva “Lisa” Beiles’ recent battle with cancer, which left her with a compromised immune system. “He was a baal teshuva,” said Chaim Worch, who used to sit next to Beilis in synagogue, using the Hebrew term for a Jew who returned to traditional Jewish observance. “Everything he did was for the sake of heaven.”

Daniel Scully, 69, loved the Cubs

(JTA) – Daniel Scully was a fanatic Cubs fan – so much so that it was his standard sign-off. Every time he hung up the phone or finished a text message, he would end with “Go Cubs.”

Scully was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, the middle child of three siblings. He worked for a family plastics business and when the opportunity arose to open a branch in Las Vegas, he jumped at it. Even after moving, he would come back to Chicago a few times a year to visit his siblings and catch a Cubs game.

Scully was due to visit in early April for his mother’s 96th birthday. But on March 15 he succumbed to the coronavirus in a Las Vegas hospital. He was 69.

A lifelong bachelor, Scully lived a solitary life. “He always seemed happy, even though he was alone,” his sister, Cissy Scully Greenspan, recalled.

After the family business closed, Scully opened a PostNet franchise in Las Vegas. But health problems led him to sell about a year ago.

In early March, Scully stopped answering his phone and the family asked the police to check in on him. They found him in his bed – alert, but too weak to call for help. The police officer who called Greenspan with the news let her know that Scully had been conscious when they found him.  

“That night, he knew that we had sent help for him,” she said. “And that comforted me. He knew even from afar we were still looking out for him.”

Torah Portion – Vayikrah

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